History Matters: Egon Krenz, the GDR’s Last Premier, on the Current Crisis with (against) Russia
Courtesy of Der Standard, this is an actually interesting interview, even though the journalist conducting it was quite…tonedeaf and impertinent to boot
Much delayed (due to other things taking precedence, on which I shall report in due course) and not very original, here’s what I spotted over the weekend, as reported by Austro-Covidistan legacy media: an interview with one Egon Krenz, the GDR’s last premier—and ‘re-united’ Germany’s most outspoken ‘political prisoner’.
If you don’t know who Mr. Krenz is, here’s his quasi-official bio (via the Ministry of Truth™), but not, as so often, the discrepancies between the linked English entry and its German-language ‘equivalent’ (ahem).
Sidenote: personally, I had the opportunity to listen to Mr. Krenz a few years ago at a panel discussion in Zurich, Switzerland (which is when he referred to himself as ‘political prisoner’, more on which below). He was very alert, definitely outmanoeuvred and out-argued his counterpart, West Germany’s first de facto ambassador to East Berlin (a grey, flannel suit-wearing bureaucrat very much reminiscent of the so many Mr and Mrs. Smiths that populate overblown bureaucracies, be they in Washington, Brussels, or elsewhere). In addition, Mr. Krenz pissed off many well-to-do and virtue-signalling, middle-aged Germans in attendance as he comparatively decried the accomplishments of the former GDR with the promised cornucopia (‘blossoming meadows’, of Helmut Kohl vintage).
When Mr. Krenz mentioned illegal and outright criminal acts, something that the GDR is stands (rightly) accused and condemned, the attendant well-to-do and virtue-signalling, middle-aged Germans lost it: huffing and puffing, one of them hyperventilated that ‘the GDR was a criminal state’, due to strict border controls and the official order to shoot at sight at anyone attempting to cross the German-German border illegally, the so-called Mauerschützenprozesse (which translate, albeit very awkwardly, into ‘shoot-to-kill those who climb the wall’; there’s but a German and Polish Wikipedia piece, but machine translations help quite a bit). Mr. Krenz was indicted as the most prominent former GDR politician and subsequently sentenced to 6.5 years in prison for manslaughter, albeit released on parole after having served 2/3 of his sentence.
As an aside, Mr. Krenz’ trial, sentencing, and imprisonment, while it reminds me of Kafka’s novel The Trial (Der Process), is telling. As a thought experiment, think about it as, e.g., Mr. Reagan being imprisoned, instead of lionised, for the ‘breach of its obligations under customary international law not to use force against another State’ as the U.S. had mined Nicaragua’s harbours (if you don’t know anything about this, see here). Or the sentencing and imprisonment of, say, Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer for their criminal—under domestic and international law—attack on Yugoslavia over (allegedly) Kosovo in 1998/99. The listing could go on, almost indefinitely, but you get the point…
So, without much further ado, here’s Mr. Krenz’ take on the current mess, courtesy of Der Standard (of all places…). The interview appeared yesterday (17 July), and, as always, the translation and all emphases are mine.
Ex-GDR Head of State Krenz: ‘Russophobia is the Wrong Answer’.
At 85, the last head of state of the GDR, Egon Krenz, presents his memoirs. He describes his close relationship with Russia. Even now he does not allow any criticism of Moscow. The problem, he says, is the USA and its claim to want to be ‘sole world ruler’.
Those wishing to visit Egon Krenz have to go into seclusion. In Dierhagen on the Baltic Sea (Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania), 30 kilometres north-east of Rostock, the last head of state of the GDR lives in a house behind a dyke. Ice cream parlours and fish stalls for tourists are far away. Yet, one must only walk a few metres to the seaside, and the surf can be heard in the garden.
Krenz spent his youth in the area and also began his rise in the SED (Socialist Unity Party) and the GDR youth organisation FDJ (Free German Youth) in the early 1960s.
He then went to the Party College of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow and finally to [East] Berlin, where Krenz rose to save the GDR after Erich Honecker’s fall, but he failed to do so in 1989. This was followed by four years’ imprisonment in reunified Germany from 1999 to 2003 (for manslaughter at the border at the Berlin Wall). [See my comment on German ‘unification’ at the bottom]
Now Krenz is 85 years old and presents the first volume of his memoirs, which are planned in three parts. He has already written several books, such as We and the Russians (Wir und die Russen) in 2019. In his memoirs, though, he wanted to become more personal.
Krenz does not like to give interviews to media from Germany. Before the interview with Der Standard, he had declared that he would not comment on ‘current affairs’.
But when we met, he is ready to do anyways.
[BB = Birgit Baumann, the interviewer; EK = Egon Krenz]
BB: ‘Never again war’, that was always your guiding principle, which you describe in detail in your memoirs. How are you doing with regard to Ukraine?
EK: Very badly. [Born in 1937] I have memories of the Second World War. No one needs to tell me what it’s like to sit in an air-raid shelter and not know whether you’ll get out alive again. Never again war, that’s what my mother taught me. She lost her first husband in the First World War and my father in the Second. In matters of war and peace, I hold on to the the GDR’s state doctrine: war must never again emanate from German soil. This was the shared promise of Willy Brandt [W German chancellor, in office 1969-74], Helmut Kohl [likewise, in office 1982-98], and Erich Honecker [East German Chancellor, in office 1971-89], which is endangered by the current policy of the German government.
BB: In your eyes, is Germany waging war?
EK: Maybe not de jure, but de facto [the scientific advisors of the German Bundestag, agree with Krenz on this one, according to a legal expertise, dated 16 March 2022: weapon deliveries alone aren’t, but training Ukrainian soldiers on these systems on German soil may be considered an act of war under international law]. Not only fear-mongering war rhetoric abounds. Germany supplies weapons, and every delivery of weapons is a new licence to kill. Moreover, Ukrainian soldiers are being trained on German territory. Instead of supplying weapons, a diplomatic offensive to end the war would be necessary. I am glad that the GDR is the only German state that has never waged war. No GDR soldier has ever set foot on foreign soil for combat operations.
BB: Then Russia should immediately stop the attacks?
EK: Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Formally, it is a war [which I think is a questionable proposition, legally speaking] between Russia and Ukraine, but in fact it is a global political confrontation between the USA and Russia at the expense of the civilian population. The USA wants to be the sole world ruler and is using Ukraine to develop an anti-Russian state. Russia opposes this, citing its own security interests. I would also remind you that—as long as the Soviet Union existed, and with it the GDR—there were no wars in Europe.
BB: Russia started the war against Ukraine. That is indisputable.
EK: The GDR writer Christa Wolff expressed an interesting thought in her novel Cassandra (Kassandra). It can be known when a war begins, she writes, but when does the pre-war begin? With this war, too, there is a prehistory that unfortunately plays no role in current politics [or media portrayals, I’d add]. Back in 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev recklessly declared the Cold War over, while George Bush Sr. declared the USA the victor. Nevertheless, Moscow agreed to German unification despite united Germany’s continued membership in NATO. Without this compromise, there would have been no German unity. I remember people saying that NATO should not even be extended to the territory of the former GDR. Now it is on the Russian border. Symbolically, the Wall has effectively been moved from Berlin to the East.
BB: But the Russian border is not being crossed. The Russians, on the other hand, are crossing borders and kill at-will in Ukraine. Could you, the anti-fascist, care less about this? [note the rather impertinent tone and framing]
EK: Of course, I care about it. I have friends in both [Russia and Ukraine]. In Soviet times, they lived together like brothers and sisters. But I also can’t neglect the fact that there are no Russian soldiers on the borders of Mexico with the USA, while US troops are deployed thousands of kilometres away from home right on Russia’s doorstep. I would even have an idea how to get out of it, but nobody will want to implement it.
BB: What is this idea?
EK: Just as European politicians went to see Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Selenskyj, they could also go to Washington and seek convince President Joe Biden to negotiate with Russia on an equal footing on Putin’s December 2021 proposals for safeguarding Russian security interests. That would serve European interests. After all, there is a blueprint for goodwill: USSR Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev and US President John F. Kennedy prevented a world war twice: once in Berlin in 1961, and once in Cuba in 1962. It wouldn’t be bad if something like that could be written about Olaf Scholz in later history books…
BB: Only Russia can stop the fighting.
EK: Unfortunately, the realities are different: the key to any resolution is: the USA. The West could, of course, out of its own interest and as a gesture of goodwill towards Russia, end its gas shortage by lifting the sanctions that hurt Germany more than Russia. No one would have to freeze in winter if Nord Stream 2 were finally opened. That would have no effect on the war—as is already evident—but it would improve the atmosphere.
BB: People die every day. Shouldn’t Putin also be held responsible?
EK: If it is true—and I think it is—that without Russia no important problem in Europe and in the world can be solved, and that without Russia there will be no peace, then one must find ways to negotiate with the Russian leadership. Russophobia is the wrong answer.
BB: You don’t allow any criticism of Russia. Where does this ‘friendship’ come from? [see, Ms. Baumann didn’t respond at-all to Mr. Krenz’ above-related suggestion that Europe’s politicians go and meet the swamp master in D.C. to end this mess; but Mr. Krenz is apparently a diehard ‘friend’ of Russia, as opposed to European politicians who may be…well, what exactly in relation to Washington?]
EK: I have been a ‘Russophile’ since the end of the Second World War. Back then, a Red Army soldier helped me survive. I wouldn’t call Boris Yeltsin my friend, but yes, the citizens of Russia are my friends, and also those of Ukraine. I studied in Moscow for three years and had many formative experiences there. At that time, a car manufacturer took me to his family home. That was on 22 June. On that day, the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Wehrmacht on 22 June 1941 was commemorated. That’s when I understood why it’s so important to the Russians that foreign military forces should never again be allowed to stand so close to their border. That is also the answer to why so many Russians support Putin.
BB: You played a decisive role in shaping GDR politics for decades. Do you miss the GDR?
EK: It would be strange if I were to say now: I don’t miss what I loved and what I worked for. That would be a strange answer. I advocate a differentiated assessment of the GDR and its history. Sure, we didn’t have paradise on earth, but we certainly didn’t live in hell either. The last word on GDR history has not yet been spoken.
BB: Is there a difference for you between ‘badmouthing’ and justified criticism? What mistakes have you made yourself?
EK: I know that most people who are not well-disposed towards us say: The bad thing was the building of the Wall. Of course, the Berlin Wall was the ugliest structure Germany had. But it was also the most necessary. Even the then US President John F. Kennedy said that the Wall was not a nice solution, but it was still better than the Third World War.
BB: And otherwise? [note the casual, if not cavalier ignorance of that salient point]
EK: In the first years of the GDR with Walter Ulbricht, there was hardly a law that was not discussed with the people. The laws were also written in such a way that people who had not studied could understand them. Unfortunately, this did not happen in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1989, I drafted a resolution for the Politbureau that was discussed for a long time and initiated the so-called Wende [the end of the GDR]. There I said: ‘The information policy must be better, the supply side must function better, and the possibility to travel must be better. We should have solved this much earlier—after 1975 at the latest. For freedom of travel, the Federal Republic would have had to respect the citizenship of the GDR.
BB: If the GDR was, as you write, the better Germany, why does it no longer exist?
EK: That is the question of all questions. I’ve been dealing with it for 30 years and keep coming up with new insights. It is a tangled web of domestic and foreign policy, economic and political, moral and domestic German, world political and pan-German causes. Unfortunately, there is still no serious scientific analysis of the epochal change from 1989 to 1991.
BB: What other considerations are there?
EK: That’s where the Soviet Union comes into play. I never imagined that our ally, our friend, as we always believed, that is, the Gorbachev leadership in Moscow, would betray us. Everything that had to do with German unity happened essentially through Gorbachev behind the back of the GDR. I am already happy that I did not lose my nerve on the evening of 9 November 1989.
BB: You're talking about the evening the Wall fell.
EK: Many people say that it was thanks to the people with their candlelight vigil-turned-into-protest that things remained calm. I don’t want to argue about that. But these people have to take note that the armed forces were ours and so were the weapons. After all, I was in command during that time. The change of system succeeded without a shot being fired. We did not lead Europe into a war in 1989.
BB: You describe in your memoirs that you could have gone to the West with your mother as a child because your half-sister lived on Sylt (Schleswig-Holstein, W Germany). Did you never regret that this did not happen?
EK: My sister wanted us to join her. We were there for a while in 1947, when it was still the British Zone. But then my mother decided to go back with me because she thought that too many Nazis still had influence in the West. I am grateful to her for that to this day. I come from a very humble background; I could not have developed as successfully in the West as I did in the GDR. I had the good fortune to help build a new society in which man was not to be man’s enemy, but his friend. And when the era changed, we didn’t slam the door behind us, but shaped the transition peacefully. That is also a future value that the GDR left behind.
Final Words On This One
I’m a bit unsure what to make of Mr. Krenz, to tell the truth. He sure comes across as a better example of Socialist Solidarity than many of his Eastern and Western contemporaries, to say nothing about the current crop running things.
That said, our (post)modern societies cannot turn at the whim of any one ruler, and most people in the West are deluding themselves, if they actually believe that getting rid of, say, Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, or Xi Jinping will change things more than, say, our Western way (‘democracy’ and ‘free elections’) to do so.
As I said, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Krenz briefly a few years ago: he appeared profoundly sorry for the things that went wrong, including his brief tenure in charge of the GDR.
Still, throughout the years and decades since, he maintained his Socialist convictions, which is something I can respect (even though I do not agree with them). The same cannot be said for most Western politicians who flip-flop as soon as some PR advisor half their age comes with new focus group test results on this or that matter.
Most interestingly, though, is that the octogenarian Egon Krenz has a firmer grip on what I perceive as objective reality than most in the West’s chattering and self-declared expert classes. I found his suggestion that Europeans should go to D.C. and make their case. It’s probably as sensible a policy suggestion as it is certain not to happen anytime soon.
Finally, with respect to German so-called ‘re-unification’, this is also a tricky one: it’s another delusion, widespread among virtually most people you’d encounter—evidence to the contrary:
It’s basically a kind of Anschluss, not unlike the one Russia is claiming re-united it with Crimea in 2014, ironically so.
You don’t need to trust either the Ministry of Truth™ or me on this one, by the way. Just look up Art. 23 of the German de facto constitution, the so-called Grundgesetz (1949): if Reunification was achieved, a Constitutional Convention would have to be convened.
The Kohl government of 1989/90 worked tirelessly to avoid it, hence the painful wording on ‘reunification’ (and my continued use of scare quotes).
Last word: I’m no stranger to these ‘niceties’, esp. since I approached a number of legacy media outlets last fall and offered them my views on the End of the Austrian Second Republic.
Back in December 2021, I wrote this:
Both legacy and alternative media refused to publish the below piece: my submission has been ignored by the former, and embarrassingly labelled ‘extremist’ by the latter…
I then sent it to a German ‘alternative’ media whose main sales pitch has long been ‘we care about historical background’ and ‘other context’. Still, their response was even worse than radio silence: to try to overcome the deep divisions of family members, friends, and society as a whole, I propose to call for a new republic, based on a new constitution. Guess what, ‘alternative’ media deemed this ‘incendiary’ because, ‘apparently’ calling for a new constitution is ‘extremist’ as it’s a long-standing call ‘among certain Germany-based right-wing groups’, I was told via email.
Well, you could read up on it here:
What else is there to say (what I didn’t say about this last Friday)?
Thus ends the brief, if stupefyingly incomplete yet potentially marvellous, era of self-government: there are rules and regulations, even treaties and laws, but leading politicians and their brown-nosing camp followers in legacy media are taking one dump after another on our inalienable natural rights, shredding our constitutional protections, and, perhaps most insultingly, declare—at the same time—that even though they wish to change all of these things (and many more, such as Biology), they brazenly tell us that it’s actually technically impossible to do so.
Very interesting how, these days, communists sound so much more reasonable than defenders of “democracy”. Western oligarchical structures have nowhere to go but toward more totalitarianism and wars. In order for them to survive, which is their number 1 goal, they feel they must destroy everything around them. Hence the destruction of the West, both economic and the genocidal destruction of human life.
So if I understand this correctly, convening a constitutional diet was something all the then active politicians of West Germany feared so much (why?) they rather used base semantics to get out of it?
Apart from shameful and tainting the unification, what could the reason be? A fear of public sentiment demanding demanding public referenda on a new united constitution?
As for the failure of GDR, it was down to three things, and those aren't the first that comes to mind, seeing as they are not very glamorous nor do they glorify the western states and systems:
1) Even before starting to return to USSR, soviet forces dismantled what was left of infrastructure in eastern Germany and transported it to the Motherland. Even such things as railroads and bridges were dismatled, and virtually all factories and an enormous amount of remaining vehicles. This firmly made GDR dependent on USSR which was the intended effect.
2) The authoritarian and totalitarian elements of marxism put into effect as socialism makes it self-defeating: the state must either live with the problems of actively spending resources to combat private business (such as people selling homegrown fruit and vegetables, as was done during Lenin's tenure and which was quickly abolished by rebranding it as a good thing beeing the Party's idea) or allow private industry to create a black market compensating for the failures of planned economy. Neither which is a good way to have an ordered state, nor a functioning economy. Order for the sake of good outcomes, not order for the sake of order, so to speak. Krenz ceetainly knows all this but the interviewer doesn't and thus can't ask the right questions.
3) Depriving the people of simple creature comforts for two stupid reasons: the idea that being exposed to US commercialised culture would make the people turn on the state and the endless didactic attempts to "be equally cool" but in a german communist way. Neither works, both feels insulting an demeaning for both authority and subject, and thus the whole process breeds contempt and rejection. Sweden had a very strong trend of the same thing, and very much so due to our close relationship with the GDR, during the 1960s and 1970s, so this one I know by heart so to speak.
But of course, it feels better for US and british thinkers to claim that it was due to the superiority of their systems they won (and a grater Pyrrhic victory the world has never seen). As a thought experiment, imagine a US where the South rising against Washington DC in 1917-1921 results in them winning a revolutionary war, leading to the immediate and total boycott of them and an active economic war being insitigated by european bankers.
I dare say the US would not have looked much better than the USSR under similar circumstances. A corrupt politburo robbing the people, or robber barns doing it amounts to pretty much the same for John Smith and Ivan Ivanovitj.